Manwha 100

9781600099519As a reviewer, I’ve found Manga: The Complete Guide (Del Rey), Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern Manga (Stonebridge Press), and Manga: 60 Years of Japanese Comics (Laurence King Publishing) indispensable references, whether I’m searching for information about a series’ publication history or looking for insight into a particular artist’s style. I hoped that Manhwa 100: The New Era for Korean Comics would provide a similar perspective on the Korean comics industry. Unfortunately, Manhwa 100 turned out to be an ambitious but poorly executed attempt to highlight the medium’s most popular, influential series.

In terms of organization and metholodgy, Manhwa 100 falls somewhere between Manga: The Complete Guide and Dreamland Japan, offering summaries of one hundred books, some of which have been translated into English. Each entry includes basic information about the series’ print run (e.g. number of volumes, magazine of serialization), its author, and its crossover into other media (e.g. videogames, television programs), as well as a plot summary and an assessment of the work’s artistic merit. Entries are grouped according to audience, with sections devoted to sunjeong (girls’) comics, boys’ comics, adult comics, and “webtoons,” comics that debuted online but were later anthologized in print.

We learn in the introduction that a committee of thirty industry professionals chose the books featured in Manhwa 100. The exact selection criteria are never satisfactorily explained, though it’s obvious the committee made a concerted effort to represent a broad spectrum of styles and subjects; no artist has more than one entry devoted to her work. Most books are of recent vintage, with only a smattering of titles released in the 1970s and 1980s.

And here I have a confession to make: I was sorely tempted to call my review “Manhwa 100: Cultural Learnings of Comics for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Korea.” Why? The text is comically awful, awash in awkward phrases, grammatical errors, egregious typos, and ill-advised attempts to keep it real with slangy, conversational phrases that clash violently with the prevailing tone. The entry for Blue, a title by Lee Eun-hye, is typical of the book:

Comic book characters are used in many character merchandises now, but it was [sic] not very actively used in the 1990s. However, the comics of Lee Eun-hye were widely used in character merchandises, even in the 1990s. This is because the author has the knack of using colors as one of her main themes. As she said in her own words, “color in itself is a story.”

As she proclaims in Jump Tree A+, her previous work to Blue, the teenage years are the “Green Age.” Her new story, Blue, represents the young adult age. The color blue in the comic has two sides. It represents a bright fresh side of youth, and it also represents sadness and gloom. The twenty-somethings in the comic are both fresh and youthful, but at the same time lonely and nostalgic.

A rich man’s illigitemate [sic] son Seung-pyo, passionate dancer Hae-joon, his faithful follower Yeon-woo, smart but cold Hyun-bin, and strong charismatic rocker Ha-yun: Blue revolves around these five characters. The loneliness in Blue was sprouted from self-pity and narcissism. Like in many of her other comics, author Lee Eun-hye pushes her characters into their own narcissistic world disconnected from each other.

That is why Blue is beautiful. The earnest characters express their life honestly. And the poetic narration and symbolic monologues add to its beauty. In 1997, an OST disc, inspired by the comic, was…

Yes, the entry really does end with an incomplete sentence.

If I’m reading the text correctly, this confusing verbiage could be boiled down to three talking points: (1) Lee’s manhwa was among the first to inspire “character goods” (phone cards, figurines, stationery, keychains, etc.); (2) her books feature beautifully drawn, emotionally stunted characters; and (3) her books are popular enough to be adapted into TV shows, CD dramas, and the like. Though it’s obvious she views color as a metaphor for age and mood, it’s not clear how or if she uses color in her work–a crucial point, given the increasingly important role that color is beginning to play in manhwa. It’s also unclear what distinguishes Lee’s work from other sunjeong titles, as symbolism, emotionally-charged conversation, and interior monologues are staples of the medium, not personal idiosyncrasies.

If the book synopses are frustrating, the contextual essays are downright obtuse. With titles such as “Open a Manhwa Book, Become a Friend of Korea” and “Manhwa in America: The New World of Charms Yet to be Discovered,” their stilted language and boastful claims for manhwa’s international importance make them sound like Pravda articles. Anyone hoping for insight into the differences between manhwa and manga (or other sequential art traditions, for that matter) will be frustrated by the maddeningly vague, jingoistic text which acknowledges stylistic similarities between manhwa and manga while arguing for significant differences in subject and approach. As manhwaga Lee Hyun-se explains:

While the Japanese samurai pulls out his sword for the completion of his skill, the Korean warrior draws his sword in revenge of his family or to fight against his or her sworn enemy. The Japanese hero walks the glorified path of the hero, which is as clear as the blood he spills, but the Korean hero trudges, stumbling upon his own defects.

Lee attributes the difference in approach to Korea’s lengthy history of occupation, contrasting it with Japan’s long period of isolationism and political intrigue. “The endless internal strife of the Japanese builds up a sense of hubris and elitism,” he argues, “while being on the defense instills a sense of humility and compassion for others… The hero of Japanese manga is ‘I’ while the hero in Korean manhwa is ‘We.'” It’s an interesting but flawed thesis, akin to suggesting that Howard’s End and Finnegan’s Wake are utterly different because one was written by a British imperialist and the other by a downtrodden Irishman. Lee seems to forget that avenging one’s family (or village, or sweetheart, or mentor) is one of the most basic manga plotlines, transcending genre and time period. He also overlooks the important role of community in manga; for every Lone Wolf, there are just as many characters who discover their purpose when they join a particular group, whether it be the school council (a la Love Master A) or the Shinsengumi (a la Kaze Hikaru).

Given Manhwa 100‘s limitations, I’m reluctant to recommend it; anyone hoping for an indispensable reference or an introduction to Korean comics will find this book baffling. For those already enchanted with manhwa, however, I’d suggest reading Manhwa 100 in the same spirit that our grandparents and parents flipped through the Sears Roebuck catalog: as a book of possibilities, a wish list for readers who enjoyed Shaman Warrior, One Thousand and One Nights, Bride of the Water God, or Dokebi Bride. I’ve already spotted dozens of great candidates for licensing, from Be Good, a comedy about a gangster who goes back to high school at 40, to Buddy, a sports drama set inside the ultra-competitive world of women’s golf.

POSTSCRIPT, 2/3/09: I corresponded with the editorial staff at NETCOMICS, who explained that they had a contract with the Korea Culture and Content Agency (KOCCA) to distribute Manhwa 100 in North America. The book was written and produced by C&C Revolution, a private company. (No individuals are named as authors.) NETCOMICS is not responsible for the book’s editorial content, just for its distribution.

9 Responses to Manwha 100

  1. […] Kate Dacey picked up Manhwa 100: The New Era for Korean Comics, with great anticipation but was disappointed with what she saw; read her review to find out why the […]

  2. Mitch H. says:

    Sounds like a game of “You’re More Corrupted By Western Individualism Than I” to me. Shutting Out the Sun was written by a western journalist taking the other side: Koreans are ferocious individuals, while the Japanese are emotionally and socially crippled by their consensus-driven introversion. Both lines of argument are bollocks if you ask me.

    But then, I’ve yet to find a really brilliant manhwa. Even the best of Korean comics are watery, pale imitations and knock-offs of better Japanese or European models.

  3. Katherine Dacey says:

    I agree with you when it comes to the individual vs. group argument, Mitch–that line of reasoning seems oddly old-fashioned, not unlike turn-of-the-century discussions about what differentiated, say, Italians from Irishmen. I understand where it comes from, though. It’s pretty natural for colonized/oppressed groups to argue that their experience has made them morally, ethically, religiously, or, in this case, aesthetically superior to their former masters.

    I’d also agree that there aren’t a lot of great manhwa available in English. Most of the manhwa licensed for the American market has been chosen for its similarity to manga and it shows–a lot of these titles look like B- or C-list shojo/shonen properties. The very best material, however, stands on its own. I’ve read very few manga that were as beautifully atmospheric as Bride of the Water God and One Thousand and One Nights, as kinetic and gripping as Shaman Warrior, or as emotionally engaging as Goong: The Royal Palace and Forest of Gray City. If Manhwa 100 proves anything, it’s that U.S. companies are missing out on some truly distinctive, beautiful books by playing it safe with copy-cat series like Ciel, I.N.V.U. and XS Hybrid.

  4. Chloe says:

    Hmm..the “Korea Culture and Content Agency” bit in the upper right and the faults you’ve pointed out have me wondering just where this book sprung from and who fronted it in Korea. It smacks of thinly veiled PR to me..
    Also, just another bit to consider Mitch, but I’ve found over time that there are actually subtler aspects of Korean comics that differ from both European and Japanese products- for example, it must be said that Korean girl comics have, on the whole, much stronger and more aggressive leads than their Japanese counterparts, an effect that is little considered but surprisingly influential.

  5. Katherine Dacey says:

    Hi, Chloe!

    You’re right: the “Korea Culture and Content Agency” is an organization formed in 2001 to boost the visibility of animation and manhwa both in Korea and abroad. The organization sponsors artists, runs workshops, organizes conferences, and collaborates with a variety of government agencies to promote the “culture content industry.” Given the organization’s emphasis on “export of Korean cultural products,” it’s no surprise that the text has such a nationalist bent.

    What is shocking, however, is that someone actually did edit the English-language edition; a translator and an editor are both named on the acknowledgments page. A few typos aren’t a big deal, but the tortured syntax and odd word choices are.

  6. Mitch H. says:

    Chloe: yes, I’ve heard that theory, and I’ve read enough manwha to acknowledge it as more-or-less accurate from a limited sample. Unfortunately, most of what I’ve read the writer compensates by upping the blatant sexism and coarseness. And while “tough” heroines are rarer in translated shoujo manga, they’re not non-existent, and often the writing and art is better in the relatively-rare “tough shoujo” comics than in the corresponding semi-appealing manwha.

    Katherine: I’ve only read Bride of the Water God out of those titles, but since I didn’t really *like* Bride of the Water God, I’m not feeling the manwha love. I’ll be honest, the only manwha I’m following right now, even in a technical sense, is Click and Dokebi Bride, and Click‘s one of those eh, I started this & I might as well finish it sort of things. Are they ever going to release another volume of Dokebi Bride? Volume 7 seems to have fallen into the darkly dystopic and bottomless depths of December 12th, 2012 in my TRSI order-list.

  7. Katherine Dacey says:

    Mitch: Dokebi Bride is on hiatus–I think the magazine in which it was being serialized folded. NETCOMICS is generally very good about finishing series, so I think you’ll be able to finish that one once it resumes production in Korea.

    Most of the titles I list above are written for women (with the notable exception of Shaman Warrior, which is an unapologetic sword-and-sorcery kind of tale), so I’m not sure that reading them will persuade you of manhwa’s possibilities. Have you looked at Buja’s Diary or Run, Bong-gu, Run (both from NBM Publishers)? Both are quite different from the shojo/shonen-esque manhwa titles licensed by Yen, Tokyopop, and Dark Horse. Buja and Bong-gu have an indie-comic feel, and might be more to your taste.

  8. dokebi says:

    I don’t understand why those ppl at the government are so stupid like that.

    It sounds very much like this –

    Bastof Lemon is the kind of show that feels like a committee decided to make a cartoon with anime elements, but didn�t understand exactly what makes modern, Japanese anime appealing. There are kids piloting giant robots, anime-like character designs, and some pseudo-religious rambling, but somehow the whole thing never really comes together.

  9. […] a comprehensive introduction to Korean comics. I agree whole-heartedly with his assessment, BTW, as my review from February 2009 […]

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